A central aspect of Jesus’ ministry was the open the table that welcomes all people in the name of God. Jesus’ table was scandalous for his day. It was a table where the sexes, classes, and social groups all mixed together as equals. Anyone could have been seated next to anyone – male next to a female, free next to slave, socially privileged next to the destitute, and the ritually pure next to the unclean.
And this practice would have been a social and cultural nightmare and a sincere threat to all who carefully defended and/or benefited from the social constructions and conventions of the First Century. The open table is a microcosm and symbol of the non-discriminatory new order of love – and visible, real, and sincere threat to those who supported the Imperial or Jewish ritual orders of the day.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the early Christian community continued the practice of the open table and found meaning and Jesus’ presence in the action. The practice which morphed into many forms of Eucharist – or meals of thanksgiving – is a foundational continuation of the open eating and inclusive community that Jesus established. And the meaning of the open table continues today to speak against social and religious customs that exclude, alienate, judge, and divide others. It is a practice today’s Christians would be wise to renew.
The Subversive, Open Table
A significant part of Jesus’ ministry involved food, feeding people, communal meals, gatherings, and table ministry. Jesus practiced an open table – a living symbol of the new order of love.
Sharing a meal at table together is an innately human act. Something very human happens at the table – there’s an intimacy of the table – it’s a face to face, measured encounter.
Food symbolizes life, our bounty, a sharing of that which gives life. The earliest humans, for whom food was scarce and meant life in the most immediate sense – used food to cement bonds and convey peace, welcome, and unity.
The open table symbolizes genuine human community, oneness, equality, and love – exactly the message Jesus intended. This vision clashed fundamentally with the basic hierarchical, elitist values of the Hellenistic-Roman Mediterranean culture of the day.
The work of Hal Taussig, a New Testament scholar, provides rich meaning and context for Jesus’ opentable. Taussig calls to our attention that meals rooted in ritual sacrifice are not part of the contemporary world. However, such meals were ubiquitous in the world of Christian origins. The ancient Mediterranean world was organized around a militaristic state, layered systems of economic and cultural patronage, and cultic religion for which communal sacrifice (community meals and private gatherings) was central.
Another New Testament Scholar and Jesus Historian, Stephen Patterson, comments on how sacrifice was at the core of every ancient Greek and Roman city. These sacrificial meals ritualized the power of the Empire and reinforced oppressive power structures. One cannot state strongly enough how these ritualized meals reinforced the Imperium of Rome and all it stood for – how you participated in these communal meals was directly related to your place in the Imperial order.
We must ask ourselves, what did this culture of ritual sacrifice mean for the followers of Jesus? When we consider sacrifice in the ancient world, we must consider it’s layers of meaning.
One of the basic layers of meaning was food and meal. Sacrifice in the basic sense was sacrifice of an animal or group of animals, and the ritual included the sharing and eating of the flesh of these creatures. The word sacrifice in Greek means to feast, to butcher, and to ritually slaughter. Therefore, for this ancient culture, sacrifice had a necessary culinary element – the eating of meat was a sacred occasion.
Sacrifice had an inherent economic and class context. In a peasant economy, in which over 90% of the population lived as subsistence levels, food was an all-consuming affair. Meat was a luxury, and source of vital nutrition.
The typical ancient city would look to its economic and cultural elites to organize and finance the sacrifices. Sacrifice was an expensive system. It required temples, public altars, priests, helpers, many animals, servers to distribute the food, set-up, clean up, and so on.
Once the meat was ritually sacrificed, it was cooked, and then distributed for feasting. While modern anthropologists tend to focus on the ritual slaughter aspects of the sacrifice, the ancients likely focused on the feasting and sharing aspects – not to mention seating arrangements, who got what quality of food, and so on.
Ancient societies were organized along lines of strict class boundaries and patronage. The Roman world, especially, was one of hierarchy and patronage, especially in the form of the Imperial Cult.
The “first” citizens of the city received the largest, choicest portions, second ranking officials and merchants, standard cuts of meat. Further down the social food chain the shares would become smaller and mean.
Finally, outside the circle of “ranks” and “patrons” would stand widows, orphans, slaves, non-citizens, and those deemed “unclean” and “unwanted.” This group would belong to no patron system, would have no voice, no social power, no rights, and would often be left out of the sacrifice altogether.
Sacrifice was also indicative of the cultural values and structures of the day. A sacrifice expresses and reinvigorates the ordering of the community through ritual and elemental means. The sacrifice would visually and practically stake out the boundaries of the community. Ranks would sit with ranks, power with power, and so on down. In essence, attending a sacrifice was attending an index, or map, of the community gathered.
Careful attention was paid not to mix gender, class, vocation, standing – sacrifice, more than any other tangible act of ancient culture, indicated where one fit or didn’t fit in society.
Finally, sacrifice served a cosmic-religious function. The sacrifice was meant to maintain or restore order and balance in the status quo – to help win the war, keep the peace, stave off the famine, fight the pestilence, to restore the inner integrity of the polis – and to above all, maintain the Empire.
Therefore, sacrifice meant participation in religiously supporting the status quo, praying and worshiping for the continuation of the current culture – be it oppressive or not. Sacrifice sustains, creates, and maintains community according to the lines of the powerful and cemented social paradigms it symbolically represents.
Enter Jesus and the early Christian community. Jesus intentionally used his table ministry to contrast and challenge the status quo of the sacrificial order. Jesus sought out, had a preference for, appealed to – the destitute, the outcasts – those outside the bounds of the sacrificial order. The untouchables. Those without patrons, without power, or stability, or standing.
Jesus’ table was meant for the unclean, those on the margins, and the lowly of the social order. And Jesus’ table was easily recognized as a dangerous threat to the established social, religious, and economic order, as well as the Imperial Cult.
Further, Jesus’ meals were not sacrifices – the food was freely offered, not ritually slaughtered, not offered to a god. People were invited to eat, to be nourished, and were simply welcomed. Jesus and his early community refused to sacrifice, refused to participate and place themselves in the web of social, political, and economic hierarchy and Imperial structures that bound together the forms of oppression and harshness. Christians would not eat the meat of the Hellenic/Roman sacrifices.
The Roman Empire could not accommodate the Empire of God. So, the Christians took their leave. They opted out of the Empire and their assigned places within it. And they stopped doing the thing that religiously created, affirmed, and maintained the whole Imperial system – they stopped participating in the sacrifice.
The early Christian community continued the practice of the open table and found meaning and a sense of Jesus’ presence in the action. The Eucharist, as practiced in myriad ways today, is a foundational continuation of the open eating and inclusive community that Jesus established. And the meaning of the open table continues to speak against our social and religious customs that exclude, alienate, judge, and divide others – when done properly as Jesus appears to have intended.
The Open Table is the ritual-practical realization of the Open Kingdom. The table is a core metaphor – and meeting place – for the new order of love.
Three sets of questions arise from this analysis of early Christian practice. First, to what degree do we participate in sacrifices to today’s structures of Empire? Second, do our churches practice a sense of openness and hospitality, including policies regarding Eucharist? Third, do we practice an open table in our homes, welcoming others and offering hospitality?
Those who claim to be influenced by Jesus’ teaching, who claim to be followers, adherents of the way – should embrace the open table and make it a centerpiece of their spiritual and religious practice.